Seven predictions for technology-enabled higher education

By Sarah Porter –

The world has seen some unimaginable changes in the last fifty years – and technology of various kinds has been at the heart of much of this change. Technology is a tremendous advantage in some contexts – connecting people, curing illnesses, boosting food production and solving problems. At the same time, technology can also have negative impacts – and also unforeseen consequences. I believe that higher education is currently at something of a turning point in its relationship with technology, so here are my predictions for the future to help universities stay ahead.

1. The concept of ‘digital’ will fade

Digital devices and content are already becoming a pervasive part of our lives. Ten years ago, we might have talked about a ‘digital camera’ – now, the adjective is obvious. For universities, colleges and skills tutors, this means that we need to go where our students are already, utilising tools like YouTube and other virtual environments, using these to help engage learners. At JISC, we are very aware of our responsibility towards our customers in looking ahead to what that post-‘digital’ world might look like.

2. There will be even more personalisation of technology

Users will increasingly have integrated devices that they use for many different social and leisure pursuits, as well as for learning and paid work. We’ve already seen that students like using devices they’re familiar with, rather than having, say a separate device just for texts from their college or university. Ever-smarter devices will be worn, and be voice- and even brain-activated, giving users the ability to access content and services from the networked, immersive and multimedia environment in which they move. For example, students and staff at the University of Bristol can now access live bus timetables and campus information through their smartphones as they move around the university thanks to the JISC-funded MyMobileBristol app.

3. The boundaries between formal research and scholarship, andformal education and training, will become increasingly blurred

As the ‘network effect’ – the growing connections between people all around the world through all kinds of content – continues to expand, how content is created and shared will continue to grow in importance. Content and any associated learning opportunities will increasingly be contributed by ‘anyone’. We’ve seen that work really well in the projects we fund where researchers ask people to contribute to collections – it could be an archive of First World War memorabilia to support historical research, or quirky Scottish words for linguistic analysis.

Users may also contribute to informal learning networks through content that they share, either as part of their formal research or through their informal interests and activities. For example if you do some voluntary charitable work, videos showing the skills that you have acquired might go towards your degree and be used by others. The process of doing research is also something we’ve shared, through platforms like which allows scientists to collaborate on workflows. We believe that where people need to break down the boundaries between subject disciplines, technology can help bring them together.

4. The ‘added value’ of face to face educational experiences will start to break down

As the quality of online content improves, and social technologies become ever more sophisticated, online learning will become a mainstream option, for example using high quality, low cost, multi-person video conferencing on mobile devices (e.g. look at Apple FaceTime or Google+ Hangouts). In a world where flexibility and choice are increasingly valuable, and where people are growing accustomed to complex social interactions through technical environments, students and their parents will be less focused upon a face-to-face experience and more interested in the other benefits that institutions can offer in terms of course choice, quality of support, flexibility and employability.

5. The digital environment will provide more opportunities for institutions to provide an enhanced and customised student experience

Intelligent, data-driven systems will work with the student to support them, to analyse their learning behaviour, and to propose resources that may help with areas of weakness or further develop areas of interest. Interactions between learners and tutors will be recorded and stored to allow review and replay. Data analysis will help tutors to provide customised learning plans, to identify particular capabilities as well as weaknesses or gaps, and to then use these to suggest employment routes, industry placements and mentors. Many libraries are using the everyday information they collect about library users in a measured and secure way to provide a better service for them. At the University of Huddersfield library users can get involved in a game online that shows them the most popular books for their course and how their peers are doing.

6. More organisations will accredit chunks of learning

As the formal boundaries around knowledge break down, and the ability to provide a good educational experience, without needing to invest in costly real estate, becomes more achievable, modular accreditation will grow. There will be more partnerships between commercial and non-commercial organisations, courses will be made available in more flexible formats, and online course materials will be supported by distributed networks of high quality support organisations – providing academic and pastoral support, advice on careers, practical experience of employment, facilitated access to peer networks and mentoring by other distributed networks.

7. Successful organisations will think about services, not systems

Organisational processes will only survive if they make the provider more competitive, able to offer higher quality experiences, more focused on the changing needs of learners – and whoever is paying for the educational experience. Institutional systems will need to be highly flexible and able to conduct real-time transactions with many partners and beneficiaries. Higher education professionals will need new skills in order to understand the potential and risks associated with new and sometimes unproven approaches. We will need to have the right balance of flexibility and agility to be able to cope with the demands of this exciting but challenging environment. We have to make sure that we’re not using technology for technology’s sake. We also have to be clear to our students and staff what the benefits are of any changes to our current provision. The battle for hearts and minds is sometimes the greatest challenge for senior managers looking to use new technologies. The opportunities to turn the UK into the go-to place for a seamless, technology enriched learning and research experience are huge.

Sarah Porter is JISC’s Head of Innovation. Her work involves leading the strategic investment in research projects that promote new uses of technology for the benefit of education and research. Her particular interest is in how technology can help universities to innovate the day-to-day business of education and research – in particular the central importance of technology users, institutional processes and practices – to help higher education to respond to the ever-changing political, cultural and financial context.

JISC is the UK’s technology consortium for higher and further education and skills. JISC provides inspiration on the innovative use of technology for better education and research. Find out more at

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